Being Present is Not a Strategy


The optimum thing any of us can do in order to emerge from the confusion and strife of everyday existence into the light of non-dual awareness is simply to be ‘with’ ourselves, come what may, through thick and through thin, through the good times and the bad. If it were true that there is such a thing as ‘a therapeutic approach that actually works’ then this would be it! If it were true that there really was such a thing as ‘an optimum strategy for living life’ then this would be it! The problem here however being that there isn’t such a thing – there’s no such thing as ‘a therapeutic approach that actually works’ any more than there’s such a thing as ‘an optimum strategy for living life’. The idea is quite ridiculous – we’d have to be looking at things in a very peculiar way in order to take this notion seriously. We’d have to be somewhat deranged, in fact! It ought to be obvious that life cannot be lived according to a strategy…


It ought to be as obvious as the nose on our face that we can’t live life according to  strategy but it isn’t. Equally, it ought to be very obvious that there couldn’t ever be such a thing as a specific therapeutic approach to life’s difficulties that actually works but it isn’t. How can there be a generic answer to life’s difficulties when life is not a generic thing? The basic premise behind the idea of a specific ‘therapeutic approach’ is that there could be a way to deliberately encourage or facilitate the healing process (i.e. the process by which we grow as people). This premise however is quite absurd! The healing process cannot be guided or regulated from the outside – we might as well make a rule that all seedlings should sprout in accordance with this government guideline or that government guideline and then appoint officers to make sure that this happens. We can notice how a seedling sprouts and grows, and we can forbear from interfering with the process, but we can’t officiate over it. We can’t ‘take over’ what is happening or in any way make the process serve our ends rather than its own. We can’t turn our observations into a theory or model and then use this theory or model to regulate or manage how the process happens. The very idea of ‘regulation’ or ‘management’ is completely antithetical to the spirit of a natural (or ‘spontaneous’) process…


A spontaneous process simply happens – it unfolds ‘according to its own law’ and there is nothing we can do to try to take charge of it. We might be able to take charge of the process by which aluminium is extracted from bauxite, and regulate how and when that happens, but we can’t do the same with the processes that unfold in the psyche. The rational mind doesn’t regulate the psyche, no matter how dearly it might love to do so! In fact the opposite is true – the more the thinking mind gets involved with the inner process the less this process is able to unfold ‘according to its own law’. All the rational mind can do is block and postpone the processes that occur in the psyche and this happens every single time we try to ‘take charge’. It unfailingly happens! This is the obstacle to healing we never see – the obstacle is ourselves!


Similarly, the idea that there could be such a thing as ‘an optimum strategy for living life’ is quite ludicrous because life isn’t something we do. Life isn’t a problem to be overcome or solved, and strategies are only good for solving problems. When we try to ‘do’ life (which is to say, when we turn it into a cut-and-dried exercise in management) we block the process of life, we obstruct it, we ‘turn it against itself’. The extent that we try to ‘do’ life is the extent to which we can’t actually live it, therefore, and this is the obstacle we keep on running into without realizing it. We ourselves are the obstacle we keep running into, without realizing it!


There is no strategy for living life because we’re not supposed to be ‘in charge’. There’s no point in trying to figure out how to live life, because there is no way – there’s no strategic way, no way to do it in accordance with a design or plan. But suppose we say (as we have done) that the optimum strategy is simply to be with ourselves ‘come what may’, through thick and through thin, through the good times and the bad? Suppose we make this into a therapeutic approach? Suppose we say that this is the ideal thing to do? What would be wrong with this? Wouldn’t we have a better handle on things this way? Our initial response is of course to try to turn this understanding around and make it into some kind of a framework that we can use, into some kind of a ‘recipe’ or ‘methodology’ to help us navigate life and life’s difficulties but this just isn’t going to work. It isn’t going to work because – when it comes down to it – we really don’t have any choice! This is a point that Alan Watts makes: when we talk about ‘accepting life’ that makes it sound as if it is some kind of rational decision that we can make, just like we might decide to make a cup of tea or give up chocolate cakes for Lent. We might think that we can use the idea of ‘accepting life’ as a method but we can’t – we can’t because we simply don’t have any choice in the matter. What else are we going to do?


We pretty much have to be with ourselves as we live our lives. What else are we going to do? Where else are we going to go? There’s no choice here at all! And yet, having said this, we must nevertheless point out that we do have a kind of a choice. We have a type of ‘apparent choice’ and this is the choice of temporarily absenting ourselves from our own lives. This is – needless to say – a choice that we utilize most of the time, on just about a full-time basis in fact. We are adept at utilizing this choice, we’re fully-fledged experts. We are out-and-out geniuses when it comes down to being absent – if someone was handing out Nobel prizes for ‘hiding out from our own lives’ then we’d all be there at the award ceremony shaking hands with the King of Sweden…


The reason we absent ourselves from our own lives is of course because it gets hard going. We don’t want to be there – we want to be somewhere else. The other way of looking at this is to say that the reason we absent ourselves is because we’re continuously straining to be somewhere better. We have the impression that the grass is greener in the adjoining field and so we’re hankering to get there. We’re scheming and planning how we’re going to get there and so in our fevered imaginations we’re already there! The trouble with looking forward to better times like this is of course that we’re no longer present with ourselves. We’re in a future that doesn’t exist – we’re absent, in other words. We’re more interested in ‘where we’d like to be’ than in ‘where we are’ and as a result we’re not actually anywhere!


And even when we are interested in ‘what is’ (rather than ‘what we think ought to be’) the chances are that we will still absent ourselves. Even when the going is good, when life is good, the chances are that I will be absenting myself. The thing is that there are two times when we tend to get manipulative, when we tend to get controlling – [1] is when something there is something painful happening that I want to avoid and [2] is when there is something enjoyable happening that we want to get more of! When life turns difficult then – naturally enough – we try to defend ourselves against this difficulty, and this ‘defending’ inevitably turns into us not being present. But when things are going well, and we seem to have stumbled into having a bit of good luck for a change (as we might see it) we still move into defensive mode, only this time we’re defending the fortunate situation – we’re defending against anything that might jeopardize it. In the first case therefore we’re defending against what we don’t want to happen and in the second case we defending what we do want to happen – we’re defending against the possibility of it not happening anymore! But defending is defending whatever way around we do it and so we end up absenting ourselves from our own lives in both cases…


The point we’re making here is that any sort of strategizing – when it comes to our mental state – is going to rebound adversely on us. There is simply no such thing as ‘helpful strategizing’ when it comes to being in a peaceful or happy state of mind as opposed to a disturbed or miserable one. This really does need to be stressed over and over again as we are so predisposed to believing that strategizing is the thing that is going to save us. As we have said, we strategize when things are going well (so as to ensure if we can that they carry on going well) and we strategize when things aren’t going well (so as to change this situation into one that is more favourable to us) and the understanding that ‘not-strategizing’ might be the thing that will save us (rather than yet more controlling, yet more manoeuvring) is one that just never occurs to us. The understanding that the optimum thing any of us could ever do (in either scenario) is simply to ‘be with ourselves’ couldn’t be further away from us. It’s not so much that it’s the last thing we’d ever think of, but rather that it’s the one thing that we never ever would think of…


‘Being present’ isn’t a strategy. A strategy is something we engage in order to obtain some sort of a pre-specified outcome and we don’t ‘be present with ourselves’ in order to obtain some kind of an outcome! If we were attempting to be present with ourselves in order to obtain some kind of an outcome then we simply wouldn’t be present because strategizing – as we have said – causes us to be absent rather than present. We have retreated into our thoughts, retreated into our plans and our calculations and so the one place where we most assuredly aren’t going to be is in the present moment! We’re being ‘clever’ about it and cleverness is really only avoidance.


It can be seen that saying (as we have done) that the optimum thing any of us can do is simply ‘to be with ourselves come what may’ is a bit of a trick statement, therefore. It’s a ‘trick statement’ because if one thing is the optimum then all other things must be ‘not optimum’ and the situation where ‘one thing is more advantageous than the other’ straightaway leads into strategizing. Where else can this way of seeing things lead? It would be more helpful to say that wherever we happen to be, that is the optimum place to be, because this then cuts off the very root of strategizing, the very root of the deeply engrained need to stay in control. Being present means simply ‘being where we are’, and this is not a strategy! This is not a form of ‘being clever’!


If we could see that the process of life unfolds according to its own law, and that this has nothing to do with our desires, our need to feel in control (i.e. our need not to feel painfully insecure) then this would revolutionize everything. Our whole approach to life would be turned on its head. Instead of basing everything on the need to enforce ‘the way we think things should be’ we would be orientating ourselves in terms of ‘sensitivity to what is’. As soon as we say this we can see that ‘sensitivity to what is’ cannot be a strategy. Strategies are always about enforcing what we think ought to be the case, never about being sensitive to what actually is the case. There can’t be such a thing as a strategy to help us be more sensitive! That would be like saying that there could be such a thing as a strategy to help us be better listeners, or a strategy that would enable us to be more caring, or more creative, or more ‘aware’ – there are no strategies for these sort of things. There is only ‘being present’ and being present is not a strategy.


What we are saying here sounds very simple – and in one way it is simple, astonishingly simple in fact – but in another way it is not so simple at all! It isn’t ‘simple’ because of the way in which we automatically turn ‘not having a strategy’ into a strategy. We do this without being aware of what we are doing. We do this without even noticing – in passing – the total irony of what we have just done. For example, we can say – quite rightly – that being present means ‘accepting what is’, and ‘not judging what is’. So far so good. But if I say (either to myself or someone else) “Accept!” then this is a method – accepting is now my method, whereas before my method was this or that form of ‘non-accepting’. And if I say “Don’t judge” (again, either to myself or to someone else) then not-judging now becomes my method, whereas before my method was judging, or evaluating…


Nothing has really changed, therefore. I’m just upgrading my strategy – I’m just playing a more sophisticated game. Actually, without realizing it, I’ve tied myself up in knots. If I make ‘accepting’ into my new method (i.e. if I make a rule that says “I must accept”) then I have rejected non-accepting. But if I am rejecting my non-accepting then I’m not being ‘non-accepting’ at all! I’m just going around in circles! And if I make ‘Not judging’ into my new method (if I make a rule that says “I must not judge”) then I have judged my judging! So in reality I’m judging more than ever – I’ve created a whole new level of judging!


The problem is that the ‘purposeful self’ – which is who or what we usually take ourselves to be – can never NOT strategize!! Strategizing is all that it can do; strategizing is all that it can understand. If we could only understand clearly the nature of the purposeful self and how it works, then we would see that all it can ever do is obey rules. That’s how it operates – that’s the only way it can operate. The purposeful (or ‘conditioned’) self cannot ever do anything unless it first comes up with a rule saying that that it should do it. It can’t do anything without ‘a purpose’. The purposeful self is an automaton, in other words, because all it can ever do is follow instructions. It can’t do anything without first having a defined goal. All it can ever do is obey its own rules, it own purposes. So if this self gets the idea that the insanity of its unremitting purposefulness (the fact that it is always obeying one rule or another) is causing problems, is causing suffering, then it will straightaway (without reflecting upon the irony of what it is doing) come up with a new rule which says “I must not obey any rules”. The new rule is to not have any rules. The new instruction is to not follow any instructions. The new purpose is to not have any purposes. The new goal is to live without goals…


This sounds like a hopeless mess but it isn’t – there is still freedom here even if we can’t see it. We just need to stop seeing things through the eyes of the conditioned self. The thing here is that just as soon as we do clearly understand the purposeful self and the way that it works then this means that we are no longer identifying with that self, and if we are no longer identifying with the conditioned self then we are free from its mechanical nature, we are free from inbuilt invisible paradoxicality.


We can only understand that there is this ‘thing’, this ‘automaton’ we call the purposeful (or conditioned) self when we no longer automatically believe that we are it. To see the conditioned self is to be free from it; as Krishnamurti says, “The seeing is the doing”. Or as it says in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, “To see illusion is to depart from it.” Normally we think that there must be something we need to ‘do’ but doing means strategizing and when we strategize we automatically identify with the purposeful self, which makes it impossible to see that self or know that it isn’t who we really are! When Krishnamurti says that ‘The seeing is the doing’ he means that the seeing itself is the thing, instead of the doing – and this is what is so hard for us to understand. For us – as we have said – purposeful doing is all that we know. Purposeful doing is also the thing that keeps us unconscious, the thing that keeps us firmly identified with the purposeful self. This is what Ken Wilbur is saying in the following passage taken from No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth:

Slowly, gently, as you pursue this dis-identification “therapy,” you may find that your entire individual self (persona, ego, centaur), which heretofore you have fought to defend and protect, begins to go transparent and drop away. Not that it literally falls off and you find yourself floating, disembodied, through space. Rather, you begin to feel that what happens to your personal self—your wishes, hopes, desires, hurts—is not a matter of life-or-death seriousness, because there is within you a deeper and more basic self which is not touched by these peripheral fluctuations, these surface waves of grand commotion but feeble substance.


Thus, your personal mind-and-body may be in pain, or humiliation, or fear, but as long as you abide as the witness of these affairs, as if from on high, they no longer threaten you, and thus you are no longer moved to manipulate them, wrestle with them, or subdue them. Because you are willing to witness them, to look at them impartially, you are able to transcend them. As St. Thomas put it, “Whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature.” Thus, if the eye were colored red, it wouldn’t be able to perceive red objects. It can see red because it is clear, or “redless.” Likewise, if we can but watch or witness our distresses, we prove ourselves thereby to be “distress-less,” free of the witnessed turmoil. That within which feels pain is itself pain-less; that which feels fear is fear-less; that which perceives tension is tensionless. To witness these states is to transcend them. They no longer seize you from behind because you look at them up front.

As we usually are, we cannot see the purposeful self. We do not know what it means to be ‘identified with the purposeful or conditioned self’. We are it so we can’t see it. It’s invisible to us. We can however – if we pay attention – notice its strategizing! The purposeful self automatically tries to control – for it, ‘to exist is to control’. For it, ‘existing equals controlling’. So when we notice our strategizing (the rational calculations we are making with regard to our situation) then we are noticing the purposeful self. We notice ourselves trying to control things either the one way or the other (either in accordance with the attraction or aversion that we feel in relation to certain outcomes) and we also notice how we feel when we succeed in our controlling and when we don’t succeed. Normally we identify with the need that the purposeful self has to control, to strategize, and when we identify with it we can’t notice it. The same is true when we think when we identify with a thought we don’t see ourselves thinking. We just get ‘sucked up in the thought’ and that is that. So to see the ‘urge to control’ (rather than automatically identifying with it) is to see the purposeful self, just as to see the thought (rather than just getting automatically ‘sucked up in it) is to see the purposeful self. When we actually see the purposeful self we are aware that it is always something of an absurdity. How could it not be an absurdity when it always has to be trying to control everything, either the one way or the other?


This is really quite a remarkable thing to behold. What does it mean if we can never be at ease, but instead have to be ceaselessly controlling, ceaselessly strategizing, ceaselessly trying to get things to be the way we think they ought to be? What kind of a situation is this? The only time we get to rest is when we successfully get things to be the way we think they ought to be, and even this isn’t really ‘resting’ because if we were to genuinely rest then everything would start to slip again, everything would stop being the way we think it ought to be. I’m never at peace with the way things are therefore – I’m only ‘kind of at peace’ (on a strictly temporary and conditional basis) with the way things are when I have them under control. So when I am identified with the purposeful or conditioned self this is my predicament. And if I get tired with the state of affairs (as I am inevitably bound to) then what I am going to do is try to control myself to stop controlling all the time. I’m going to try to come up with a strategy to help me not to be trying to be in control the whole time. And yet no matter what I do I am only ever going to be compounding the mess that I’m in!


The more we try to accord with the Tao (the innate harmony of things) the more we deviate from it, Alan Watts states. And yet at the same time it is also true, he goes on to say, that we can never really deviate from the Tao, from the natural order of things. Ken Wilbur quotes the Zen saying, “That from which one can deviate is not the true Tao.” As soon as we stop seeing everything from the viewpoint of the purposeful self – which we do simply by ‘being present’, simply by taking a break from our ceaseless strategizing – then we come back into the innate harmony of things, which we will discover that we had never really left…




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